It was clear and crisp on Saturday morning – a bit of a rarity in this year’s dry season – and perfect for a visit to Gunung Abang, the third highest mountain in Bali. I had already hiked up Abang three times this year, and like any place that I visit regularly, I felt like I had begun to develop a relationship with it.
I arrived at the trailhead around 7 am, and the clear weather held for the duration of the hike. The mountain had been shrouded in mist and cloud on each of the other occasions that I had visited, so it was a very different experience this time to walk up with the morning light shining brightly through the thick forest. I found myself noticing and experiencing many different things, as if it was a brand new place at times.
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the only thing that was different about Abang this time. One of the things that I enjoy most about this hike is the lush and dense forest. The trail used to be fairly narrow, and the vegetation closed in tightly against it in many parts of the hike. The trail was also quite eroded in many places and full of large rocks and roots, which made the hike technically challenging. All of these factors would stimulate a more participatory sensory engagement with my environment, which would lead to a feeling of a much fuller relationship with the forest and with the land. Feeling this kind of relationship with my environment is the essence and purpose of hiking for me.
As I began my hike on Saturday morning, I immediately noticed that the trail had been leveled out. The erosion ditches were gone, and it also seemed much wider than before. My first thought was, “Wow, trail maintenance in Bali! That’s impressive.” It seemed odd to me. I’ve never encountered more than a small handful of people on this trail, and as I walked on it became apparent that a lot of work had gone into flattening and widening the trail. Soon, the trail grew to be at least 4 – 5 times as wide as I remember it being. There was a notable absence of the big rocks and tree roots that I remember. Massive amounts of vegetation had been cleared on either side, and the trail was now very flat, uniform and in many places neat “steps” had been cut into the dirt.
While I still enjoyed the morning, I increasingly noticed that I felt much less connected to the forest than I preferred to be. The forest seemed so far away from me, on either side of the now massive trail. It was more difficult to feel the forest, and I had to make a conscious effort to do so. I made rapid progress on the ascent, and I began to feel that a lot of the meandering twists and turns had been removed from the trail. I started to feel like I was on something like a paved highway. Whoever had revamped the trail had taken the same approach that someone building a highway for automobiles would take. Instead of respectfully integrating the trail into the surrounding environment, a large and direct swath was cut through the landscape, with convenience, speed and ease of access being the main concerns. “Whoever planned this is certainly not an ecologist”, I thought, as I imagined how much erosion was going to take place during the next rainy season on this wide, exposed and flattened swath of dirt.
I then began to wonder if this had perhaps been done for a large religious procession. Why would such extensive and unnecessary changes be made to the trail for a small handful of hikers? There are three small temples on the hike – two on the way up, and one at the top. They are all seemingly insignificant temples. The one at the top was a decaying old bamboo structure, along with a very old looking and crumbling stone archway, which had fallen into disrepair. I doubted there would be any major procession for such a minor temple.
I reached the top in record time, even though I had walked quite slowly and stopped to take a lot of pictures. This confirmed my suspicions that the trail had been altered to become much shorter and more direct. It served the function of a highway. I still managed to enjoy the walk, for the most part, in spite of the changes to the trail.
I am currently reading a book called “Animate Earth” by Stephan Harding, who is a colleague of David Abram. In the book, Harding writes about Abram’s eloquent descriptions of the reciprocal relationship between a human and its environment. The environment is not simply a static, soulless object for us to perceive, measure, manipulate and dominate, as most modern worldviews assume it to be. The environment is alive and participatory, and it perceives and responds to us as much as we perceive and respond to it. Animals, plants, and even the inorganic parts of the environment all have an ability to perceive, and they respond to us. The relationship moves in both directions, hence the land and the environment must be engaged with in a respectful relationship, just as we would with another human being. All animist and indigenous cultures have held this fact at the heart of their worldviews.
To understand that our environment (meaning everything that is not us, including all of the animals, plants and inorganic parts) is alive; that it has intention, intelligence and preference; that it perceives us as much as we perceive it; and that it is ultimately a whole which we (homo sapiens) are just a small part of, and ultimately inseparable from, could be considered to be a form of animism. This type of understanding occurs outside of the realm of the rational, analytic and objectifying understanding that science and most of modern human society is based on. It arises from the subjective feeling and intuitive aspects of the human experience – or our organic, intuitive, animal intelligence.
What I enjoy most about hiking or immersing myself in natural places is the cultivation of this kind of feeling based and reciprocal relationship with the forest and with the earth. A good friend of mine and I used to give names to the specific trees, rocks or places that we would frequently encounter on our walks. We would speak of the trees or places we intended to visit on each of our hikes. To us, these trees, rocks and places were actual entities which we had a reciprocal relationships with, and visiting them was not unlike visiting a human friend. They would respond to us as much as we responded to them.
One of our favorite tree friends was a massive old oak tree, which resided on the top of a hill along one of our usual routes. We aptly named it “the tree on the hill”. It was a well known being to us, and we frequently paused and spent some time under its large branches when we passed by. One day, some years after I had moved away, my friend wrote to me and reported, “the tree on the hill died this year. It didn’t get any leaves this spring. Later, some people came and cut it down. When I walked up the other day, there were just a bunch of sawed up logs where it was supposed to be.” I recall feeling a great sadness upon reading those words. An old friend had passed away. I imagined what it would have been like to walk up the hill and to encounter a pile of sawed up logs instead of being greeted by the tree. A very strong and unpleasant visceral feeling arose deep inside of me. My friend also reflected that he had felt extremely disturbed when the tree on the hill died. It seemed to be a representative statement of the gradual decline of that section of forest, which we had witnessed over the years as the surrounding human settlement encroached deeper into it.
I often feel like I directly perceive how a specific forest or environment “feels”. Is it happy and thriving, or unhappy and wounded? How does that feeling relate to the forest’s impression of me and to its reaction to my presence within it? These perceptions don’t come from analytical observation and evaluation. They come as direct feelings and intuitions, as if the forest as a whole is speaking them to me.
As an extreme example of this, in my early 20s I worked in the silviculture industry in Northern Canada during the summer months for a few years. My job was to plant trees – reforestation – in areas which had been clearcut by logging companies or burned by forest fires. When working in a freshly clearcut area, where the stumps, branches and remnants of the trees were still lying around not yet dead, but in the final stages of dying, I always felt like I was walking through the scene of a horrific mass murder or genocide, with the bodies of the dying victims strewn everywhere. I could feel the pain and anguish of the remnants of the forest, and all of her living and non-living entities. I sometimes felt the forest was very angry, and that my presence offended it deeply. There were some days in places like these where everything would go wrong. Every five minutes, something would appear out of nowhere and trip me up until I fell flat on my face. Or I would step on a jagged branch of a dead tree, and it would jump out of the ground and whack or scratch me deeply. One day, after being tripped or scratched for the hundredth time or more, I yelled out to the wind in exasperation: “It’s not my fault! I didn’t do this to you!” The forest didn’t care. It was hurt, angry and lashing out in whatever way it could.
Other times, when I am in healthy and thriving forests or environments, I feel an immense loving energy emanating from my surroundings. I feel completely accepted and integrated into the environment, as if it will take care of me and no harm could possibly come to me. In the Yukon region of Northern Canada, where I used to live, people usually carry bear spray, which is meant to be a last resort defense in bear attacks, with them when they hike. I never felt the need to carry bear spray, even though I was often strongly criticized and called foolish. When confronted about this, I would smile and state that I go hiking with the intention of loving my environment, and that the environment recognizes this and loves me back.
I have a friend in the Yukon who is extremely adept at listening to the non-human world. One day, I was having tea at her house and she related a story to me about the construction going on in the lot beside her property. She told me that the contractor of the construction project had approached her and inquired about the potential removal of some trees that were on her property, close to the lot where the construction was taking place. The contractor had said that the trees were in the way of some equipment that they needed to use, and he proposed to cut them down and then replace them with new trees once the construction was completed. Since the trees were on her property, he would need her permission to do this. She told me that she had replied to him that she would ask the trees if they were willing to be cut down, and then let him know the following day. She said that when she went out later to ask the trees, the clear message coming from the trees was “no”. She reported this to the contractor the following day. “How did he respond to that?”, I asked. She said that he began to argue and attempted to bargain with her. She told me that she finally cut him off by sharply saying “Look! The trees said “no”, it isn’t my decision. End of discussion.”
On my hike on Saturday, I definitely felt like the forest was moderately wounded. The previous times that I had done this hike, the forest had always reached out to me and embraced me. Today, it remained aloof, and a bit sullen. Walking in the middle of this newly widened trail, with the large swaths of vegetation removed from either side, I felt like the forest chose to ignore me. When I approached the edges of the trail, to take a picture, or to touch something, or to look more closely at something, the forest would come around and respond to me. But, I clearly had to make an effort to engage with it for that to happen. The forest was sulking a bit, and it was not a natural flowing relationship like it had previously been.
When I reached the summit of Gunung Abang, I understood what had happened. I was correct in my guess that the desecration of the forest was for religious purposes. The small clearing at the summit was completely unrecognizable. It had been dramatically landscaped. All of the big old trees that I remembered as residing there had been cut down. The vegetation was all cleared away. The entire shape of the clearing had changed. The entire area was bare exposed dirt, with a shiny new concrete temple complex built in the middle of it. It looked like a construction site. It was a construction site. It was very disturbing, and I again experienced a strong and unpleasant visceral feeling. Even though the removal of the trees made for a more open clearing, and the views all around were more expansive than they were before, I did not enjoy being on the summit at all.
The following two sets of pictures represent nearly identical camera angle shots of the summit, before and after the changes were made. One set was taken on a hike in June 2016, and one was taken on this hike in September 2016:
The last hike that I did before this one, which was in the dense forest of Gunung Batukaru, also contained temples and stone idols. Yet, these man-made structures all felt completely integrated with their environment. In fact, there were a few man-made things that I hadn’t even noticed until I descended by the same route and passed by them a second time. They were so well integrated with the forest, that they remained hidden to the casual glance.
When telling a friend about this later, he asked, “Did it seem hindu or animist?”
“Definitely animist”, I replied. The stone carvings actually felt alive to me, as if some force had breathed soul and life into them and the forest had also accepted and integrated them as a part of it. I distinctly remember two small stone wild cats, which sat on the ground, nestled into the trees and undergrowth on either side of the beginning of the trail. They did not stand out to the eye, but once I stopped and looked at them more closely, they came to life. They were fierce, and snarled menacingly at me, as if to warn me about entering the forest. I sneered and growled right back at them, as if to say, “Ha! I am not afraid. Don’t worry, I belong here.” They relented, and I walked through happily.
Saturday’s experience was the exact opposite. Whoever built the new temple on the top of Gunung Abang, and paved a highway through the forest in order to do it, had absolutely no relationship with the land or sensitivity to the feelings of the land. There was no life or relationship in the man made modifications, only soullessness. The temple, and the highway through the forest were not built for the forest, or within a relationship with the forest. They were built for something that exists only in the realm of abstract and disembodied human thought and fantasy. This is the way of the world today. Whether we worship capitalism and money, or abstract and disembodied gods, or an unfeeling and objectifying science, we are turning away from our authentically felt and reciprocal relationship with the rest of the planet earth – with the living entity called Gaia – which we are inherently a part of. The rest of the planet – Gaia – knows that we are doing this. It is intelligent. It has feelings. It perceives our actions. And, it is not very happy.
Our relationship with the earth is the essence of our existence, it is a defining feature of who and what we are. We are whole when we are lovingly and respectfully integrated into the form and life of Gaia. We speak to Gaia, and Gaia speaks to us. When we stop listening to her and we stop participating in the relationship with her, Gaia becomes ill and displeased.
I wrote about one of my previous descents from the summit of Gunung Abang in my recent article “Becoming Animal”. I described how I broke into a run on the way down, and allowed my body to make instinctive and intuitive movements from a place of organic animal intelligence. On Saturday, I realized that this organic intelligence does not arise entirely from within me. I realized that organic intelligence arises out of my reciprocal relationship with my environment. It is an emergent property of that relationship, which cannot be experienced in isolation of that relationship.
Descending from the summit of Abang on Saturday, I broke into a run a few times, but felt much less steady or confident than I did in my previous descent, which I wrote about in “Becoming Animal”. On Saturday, as I ran, the slope felt too uniform. It was just bare dirt. There were no “obstacles”. No rocks for my feet to find. No tree trunks or branches for my hands to find. On my previous descent, the “obstacles” – and specifically my relationship with them – stimulated and cultivated my organic intelligence. Nearing a sharp bend in the trail, my hand would instinctively grab a narrow tree trunk, and I would use it to swing around and make the turn in mid-air. Or, perhaps the tree trunk had called out to my hand, “Here, turn now! Let me help you!” Nearing a big rock, my foot would instinctively step on it and use it as a springboard to propel myself up into the air and over another obstacle, such as a ditch or another rock. Or, perhaps the rock had called out to my foot, “Here, I will give you a lift!” Nearing a sharp drop off, my hand would instinctively grab a hanging branch, and use that to slow down my momentum, so I could navigate the drop more carefully. Or, perhaps the branch had called out to me, “Hey, slow down now! Be careful. I will help.” None of this was possible on Saturday. The flat and leveled surface of dirt, with its unnatural carved steps, did not allow for any of these spontaneous relationships with my environment. Every time I broke into a run, I soon felt like I was uncontrollably picking up speed on a sheer descent, with nothing to moderate or modulate it, and I would have to force myself to slow down and walk again.
Within the human body, each organ, or muscle, or specific population of cells or microorganisms is a discrete and distinct entity of its own. It has characteristics which make it distinguishable from the other parts of the human body. At the same time, it is also a part of the greater human body. Its integrated role in the functioning of the whole human being is as much a part of the essence and definition of what it is, as are the characteristics which allow it to be distinguished as a discrete and separate entity. Remove a heart from the human body, and it will cease to be a heart. It will quickly stop beating, die and decay into detritus. To be a heart, is to be a healthy and integrated part of a human being.
Similarly, human beings are also discrete entities of their own. Each human is different and distinguishable from other humans, and each human is different and distinguishable from other animals, plants, rocks, and the rest of the planet earth. Yet, each human, and the collective population of humans as a group, is also part of a greater whole – that of the living entity that has been called Gaia, or the self-regulating organism which is the planet earth. Just as a heart cannot be removed from its relationship to the human body and expect to continue its existence as a heart, a human being cannot be removed from its relationship to Gaia, and expect to continue its existence as a human being.
There has been a lot of talk about colonizing Mars in the news recently. This fascinates me. When I imagine what it would be like to live on Mars – if it were possible – I feel like it would be a hell. It may be possible to manufacture artificial life support systems which would allow humans to survive on Mars for some period of time – just as it is possible to set up controlled laboratory conditions where a heart can be kept alive and beating outside of a human body for some period of time. Yet, there is no doubt in my mind that such an experiment would eventually fail, and those humans who made it to Mars would die a terrible death through a combination of physical complications and psychological insanity. The human organism simply isn’t designed to function and survive outside of the greater whole of Gaia – the planet earth. Our role on this planet – within Gaia – is a part of the definition of what and who we are. We cannot exist outside of that definition.
The spiritual implications of this are vast. Science asks us to surrender to objective reasoning, and to reduce anything in the realm of feeling or intuition to subjective speculation. Capitalism asks us to surrender to money and unfettered growth. Monotheistic religions ask us to surrender to an abstract and disembodied God, and to a heaven that lies beyond this planet, which we will be rewarded with at the time of death. Our physical experience on this planet is reduced to being a testing ground for our ethical virtues and our worthiness of ultimately escaping to a better place at the time of death. Eastern renunciate religions ask us to remove ourselves from the attachments that relationships bring, in order to know the self. The Eastern ascetic attempts to cut himself off from relationship as much as possible in order to escape its samsaric clutches, and to enter into solitary and isolated contemplation. The planet earth and all of the relationships and connections we have with it, are reduced to being viewed as illusory, a cause of suffering, and ultimately meant to be transcended.
With these types of worldviews prevailing in 7.3 billion powerful and technologically equipped human beings today, it is no wonder that Gaia is wounded, and crying in pain. None of these worldviews recognize that our inherent nature is that of being in intimate and reciprocal relationship with the greater whole of this beautiful, living planet. None of these worldviews recognize that our relationship with Gaia is a fundamental and defining feature of our existence as humans. It may very well be that the only hope to re-establish the health, happiness and vitality of Gaia, is to revive the worldview and spirituality of animism: To re-engage in our reciprocal sensory relationships with the non-human world, to re-learn how to listen to the non-human world, and to re-discover that this relationship with a greater whole is a defining feature of what it means to be human.
To be human is to be in relationship with the non-human, and to play a balanced role as a part of the greater whole of Gaia. We co-evolved in intimate, intricate, and reciprocal relationship with all the other parts and components and the whole of Gaia over millions of years. To know the self, can only mean to know the role of the self within its manifold connections to the rest of Gaia. To imagine that a human being could find truth and liberation by transcending its relationship with Gaia is as ridiculous a notion as imagining that a human heart could find truth and liberation by transcending its relationship with the human organism.
In my last article, I wrote about surrendering to the self, and to the intuitive organic intelligence of the self. Comparing the experience of my two different descents down Gunung Abang – one on the old trail, and one on the new trail – helped me to come to the beautiful realization that the organic animal intelligence of the self can only arise out of the reciprocal and participatory relationship of the self with the rest of the environment. To surrender to the self and to surrender to the organic intelligence of the self means by definition to surrender to Gaia and to our relationship with her.
Fortunately, Gaia – the living, self-regulating organism which our entire planet is – is much greater than us. We are only a small part of it. One day the human species will be no more, and of all their gods and idols will die along with them. But Gaia will live on. Gaia doesn’t need us. Nature doesn’t need us. Life doesn’t need us. We are replaceable, and we will eventually be replaced. Other forms of life will evolve out of our dust and our detritus, and they will grow over our monuments and our ideas, until all traces of the human species are buried under the ashes of time. Gaia will survive and thrive, long after we are gone. This fact gives me great comfort.